Exploring the Hidden Racist Past of the Looney Tunes

From blatant plagiarism to offensive and stereotypical subject matter, the 1930s Looney Tunes cartoons have a dark history. Photo: Warner Bros. and CreditFeed/YouTube

I have an uncomfortable confession to make: I have never liked the Looney Tunes. Despite the cultural pervasiveness of these characters, and a lifelong love of animation on my part, they’ve always struck me as annoying, repetitive, and boring. For all the pandemonium that Bugs Bunny and his ilk ostensibly represent, their chaos is bland, their destruction is predictable, and their lineage is corporate.

To be fair, my exposure to Looney Tunes at the time bore that out pretty well: I grew up in the age of Space Jam and the slew of jerseys, sneakers, McDonald’s toys, pogs, and cookie jars that film spawned. Today is no better, with the Roadrunner and Foghorn Leghorn perhaps most recognizable as shills for companies like Time Warner and Geico.

Yet this was not always the case, as demonstrated by the excellent Chuck Jones exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Titled “What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones,” this retrospective illuminates the originality and charm of Jones in particular and the Looney Tunes in general. I learned that Bugs Bunny’s smart-alecky attitude and cigar-like carrot were based on Groucho Marx, and Wile E. Coyote’s design was inspired by Mark Twain’s description of the coyote as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton … with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face … The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want.”

I was also surprised to discover how topical these cartoons were. As a kid watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, I didn’t catch many of the forty-year-old references. Yet Looney Tunes was a definite forerunner to the adult animation of today, poking fun at contemporary politics and pop culture. These cartoons were far from the squeaky-clean version of today: They were vibrant, innovative, and often subversive. While this certainly makes these shorts more interesting, it also means that some of the uglier elements of the time are on full display.

Such elements are abundantly clear in the “Censored Eleven,” shorts from the Warner Bros catalogue that were withheld from syndication due to racially offensive content. These cartoons have not been broadcast since 1968, though they are available online. I present them below, not to glamorize them but to shed some light on an occasionally fascinating — and often appalling — corner of an American institution.

Hittin’ the Trail for Hallelujah Land

The oldest cartoon of the eleven, Hittin’ The Trail For Hallelujah Land is notable for its plagiarism as well as its offensive subject matter. Released in 1931 — the second Merrie Melodies short ever made — it bears a striking resemblance to Disney’s 1928 release Steamboat Willy, including a Mickey Mouse-like character named Piggy who drives a steamboat.

The film was censored due to the character of Uncle Tom, a doglike creature who runs afoul of some dancing skeletons (who are also markedly similar to an earlier Disney creation entitled The Skeleton Dance). The animal cast of this short makes racist portrayals less apparent, and the stereotype that Uncle Tom falls into — that of the superstitious Black man — is so outmoded that I didn’t even initially recognize its bigotry. Beyond this, a lack of focus and some half-baked gags are likely to make this cartoon more of a curiosity than a joy for modern viewers.

Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time & Clean Pastures

1936’s Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time and 1937’s Clean Pastures share religious themes as well as large opening set pieces that provide an opportunity to introduce a cavalcade of racial caricatures — country folk in the former and city dwellers in the latter. Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time is a standard morality tale, about an errant man (Nicodemus) who sneaks out of church to go steal some chickens. When he’s hit on the head and has a dream about the Hell that awaits him, he awakens repentant.

Clean Pastures is, on the whole, a more entertaining and more complex offering. A parody of the film Green Pastures, this short follows the angel Gabriel — a caricature of contemporary performer Stepin Fetchit — as he tries to get Harlemites to come to Heaven (or “Pair-o-Dice” as it’s called here). He is unsuccessful until four angels — caricatures of jazz musicians — suggest using “rhythm” to get people to paradise. The music is a huge success, and droves of folks come to Heaven, including the Devil himself. Offensive stereotyping abounds, but Clean Pastures has at least provided significant critical fodder. Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time, not so much.

Jungle Jitters & The Isle of Pingo Pongo

A pair of riffs on the idea of island savages, Jungle Jitters and The Isle of Pingo Pongo (both released in 1938) share a few of the same barbarian-based gags as well as a surrealist bent. The Isle of Pingo Pongo is set up as a parody of travelogues, while Jungle Jitters is more of a fish-out-of-water scenario, following a traveling salesman who gets kidnapped by natives.

While both feature some cringe-worthy jokes (connecting savage island music with contemporary jazz, a sign reading “Eat at the Dark Brown Derby,” etc.), Jungle Jitters is stronger in terms of narrative and sheer insanity. The climax, which features the islanders’ leader, a Caucasian bird-woman, falling in love with the doglike salesman, showcases a refreshing anything-goes lunacy that’s a Looney Tunes hallmark.

Uncle Tom’s Bungalow

1937’s Uncle Tom’s Bungalow is something of a missed opportunity. Based on the famous abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this short generally holds true to the themes of its source material — the slaver Legree is the clear antagonist, and the little white girl Eva and little black girl Topsy are presented as friends and essentially equals (making this the least racially segregated of the Censored Eleven). Unfortunately, the slapdash nature of this cartoon undercuts any potential message. The humor is lacking, it relies on an overuse of jokey narration, and the final punch line is a racist gambling joke.

Angel Puss

The only one of the Eleven directed by Chuck Jones, Angel Puss (1944) is at once one of the most blithe and most offensive of the banned cartoons. Its storyline of a cat outsmarting an African American man who is trying to drown him places it in line with the standard aggressor/defender of Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd or Tweety & Sylvester. The cartoon has the characteristic energy and wit of Jones throughout. Yet everything about the African American character, from his design,to his name (Sambo) to his voice to his superstitious and foolish behavior, is pure prejudicial horror, and seeing it in such a familiar context makes it all the more jarring. Note too the heightened sadism of Puss, who turns to tormenting Sambo almost immediately.

Tin Pan Alley Cats

Though Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943)is another simplistic morality tale, it’s one peppered with a number of dexterous touches, including a version of Hell that’s more agreeably insane and more effective than Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time. When a smart-alecky cat — resembling entertainer Fats Waller — chooses a nightclub over a prayer group, he’s tormented by visions of damnation. When he comes to, he repents of his sinful ways. The animation of the feline protagonist, albeit stereotypical, is particularly expressive and sincere, allowing the audience to sympathize with his plight.

Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves

Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves (1943) is a tricky one. On the one hand, you need go no further than the title to discover the racism that runs rampant throughout. On the other, this involved and detailed parody of the Disney classic is the most masterful cartoon of the eleven — it’s considered by some to be one of the best animated films ever made. It’s also unusual for its jazz bona fides and its use of Black voice actors and musicians. Make no mistake: Coal Black is often jaw-droppingly offensive. However, its sly wit and madcap energy make it an offering well worth watching.

Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears

Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears shares a lot with Coal Black — its fairytale structure, its musical-focus, its blackface characterizations of all but the intensely sexualized protagonist. Yet while Coal Black builds a coherent and surprising story about World War II, this film is more of a hodgepodge, drawing humor from non-sequiturs, contemporary references, and the lazy stereotype that Black people like to dance. After the eponymous bears leave the house to let their instruments cool down (yup), Goldilocks arrives and runs afoul of a wolf. Red Riding Hood, you see, was delayed while working “as a rivetater.” After being rescued by the bears, the short ends with everybody jitterbugging.

All This and Rabbit Stew

Whereas most of these cartoons feature characters not seen elsewhere in the Looney Tunes canon, All This and Rabbit Stew (1941) features Warner Bros’ biggest star, Bugs Bunny himself. Incidentally, the lack of other Looney Tunes stalwarts on this list is not because Bugs and friends were particularly enlightened — there are plenty of objectionable scenes that were cut out of now-classic cartoons. In the case of All This and Rabbit Stew, however, the racism is so pervasive that the entire film had to be removed.

In many ways, this short resembles a typical Elmer Fudd hunting rabbit scenario, but where Fudd’s stupidity is generic, the African American hunter’s is specifically racial. Obsessed with playing craps, the hunter loses the very clothes on his back to Bugs, leaving him with only a leaf covering his crotch. Bugs pulls that off too during the iris out — taking the hunter’s last shred of dignity with him.

Exploring the Hidden Racist Past of the Looney Tunes